Newark Goes for the Green—Land&People

Monique Freeman does not know what the word “environmentalist” means. The smart, 13-year-old middle-school student has grown up in the gritty Central Ward of Newark, New Jersey, without the word in her vocabulary. At the moment she sits, a quizzical look on her young face, in a shabby classroom at Eighteenth Avenue School, built in the 19th century and today encircled by barbed wire. Not a single blade of grass grows on the school grounds.

“But you are an environmentalist, Monique, whether you realize it or not,” Donna Kirkland tells her. Kirkland is an outreach coordinator for The Trust for Public Land who lives in the same tough neighborhood. She reminds Monique about how she was a leader in the school’s recycling program and helped pick up 64 bags of trash on Earth Day. “You’re doing something you can be proud of your whole life,” Kirkland says, watching the girl’s eyes light up. “Not many kids can say they made their city a better, more beautiful place.”

Freeman and a group of her friends also helped plan the much-anticipated Nat Turner Park, which now is rising from a blighted vacant lot next door to the school. The nine-acre park is a budding symbol of hope in a city has that has been ridiculed nationally as a poster child for urban despair.

Newark may seem like an unusual place for an environmental movement, says Carl Haefner, director of TPL’s Parks for People-Newark initiative, which is spearheading the Nat Turner Park effort. But across this city of 280,000 people, a new investment in urban parks, playgrounds, and green spaces is having a profoundly positive effect on the lives of people like Freeman and Kirkland, while modeling a new kind of urban environmentalism.

For more than a decade, neighborhood leaders, with the help of TPL and its foundation partners—but without much support from City Hall—have been building parks and playgrounds in some of the city’s toughest neighborhoods. The election of 38-year-old Cory A. Booker as mayor in 2006 has injected a new sense of optimism into this conservation work. City Hall has signaled its support for parks and open space, not only to improve life in the neighborhoods but as a key component of its aggressive strategy for Newark’s renaissance.

Since Booker’s election, the city has cast its support to neighborhood park efforts and has moved aggressively to create the new Joseph G. Minish Passaic River Waterfront Park, named for a former congressman.

The new park will cover 2.2 miles and link Newark’s bustling downtown to the densely and diversely populated Ironbound neighborhood. At the Booker administration’s request, TPL is expanding its partnership with the city to include developing this new park and refurbishing Newark’s two largest existing city parks, while continuing to focus on playground construction and expansion. The goal for TPL and the City is to provide more than 80 percent of Newark’s residents with easy access to recreational space.

“We are grateful that so many organizations are working on parks in a focused partnership, and chief among them is TPL,” says Deputy Mayor Stefan Pryor. “Parks can and should be regarded as oases for people who live in densely populated environments. We know they are a pivotal component of our social infrastructure.”

Parks for People

Settled on the banks of the Passaic River in 1665, Newark is one of the nation’s oldest cities. The city is flanked by the river on the east and anchored on the north and south by Branch Brook Park and Weequahic Park, both designed by the legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and owned and managed by Essex County. In between these natural landmarks, however, lies one of the most densely populated and park-poor urban cores in the country. According to Newark, New Jersey: An Open Space Analysis, a report published by TPL in 2004, Newark offers only 2.9 acres of parks per 1,000 residents: two and a half times below the average for comparable cities. In practical terms, that means that more than half of Newark’s kids do not have any significant green space within a quarter-mile of their homes.

As far back as the early 1970s, TPL began partnering with local foundations and neighborhood groups to address this dearth of green space, and in recent years has spearheaded the creation of seven new neighborhood parks and playgrounds. TPL is nearly halfway into its $16.8 million Parks for People-Newark campaign, with major contributions from the Victoria Foundation and The Prudential Foundation. “TPL’s commitment to this community has taken decades to evolve, and we as an organization will be here long into the future,” Haefner says. “We are not here to get in quickly and then get out.” As further evidence, TPL will open a satellite office in Newark this fall.

“By hiring from the community and having a physical presence in the city, TPL wants to send a message that we believe in Newark’s future and long-term success,” says Terrence Nolan, TPL’s New Jersey state director.

All of TPL’s projects in Newark have been founded on community energy. One dramatic park effort began in 1998, when neighbors around 3.3-acre Mildred Helms Park, in the city’s South Ward, organized the Mildred Helms Park Resurrection Committee. The park, named after an elderly community activist, had fallen into such disrepair that families stayed away out of fear for their safety.

“You wouldn’t believe what it looked like,” says Fannie Mae Harris, a 77-year-old great-grandmother and founding member of the resurrection committee. “It was all overgrown in weeds and covered in trash. There was gang graffiti spray-painted on the asphalt, and you’d often find crack vials and needles from addicts who came here to shoot up at night.” Working with the committee, TPL helped raise $2 million from public and foundation sources, including a federal grant from the National Park Service, to transform the park from a menace into a major asset within easy walking distance of 6,300 residents.

Today the park offers a walking path, swings and basketball court, wild berry bushes, nesting songbirds, a gazebo, a picnic area—and a map of the United States set into the asphalt. More than 300 people showed up for the rededication ceremony in 2005, and over the last few years the park’s restoration has served as an impetus for neighbors to fix up their properties. “With so many people coming into the park, the neighbors didn’t want the public to see their places run down,” Harris says. “The park has lifted up the people along with many of the properties surrounding it.”

Creating parks in poor inner-city neighborhoods is not as simple as planting grass seed and trees on a dilapidated lot, giving it to a neighborhood, bidding good luck at a ribbon-cutting ceremony, and walking away, says Carl Haefner, who has worked on TPL’s Newark program since 2004. The long-term success of any park, he says, is linked inextricably to its social environment. “You have to confront the barriers that prevent people from having a sense of being civic stakeholders in a park.” In Newark these include chronic poverty and unemployment, a shortage of affordable housing, and poor health care.

Key to creating parks under such conditions is a participatory design process whose goal is to build parks that meet neighborhood needs and that communities will support over the long haul. Monique Freeman and other students at Eighteenth Avenue School helped design the new Nat Turner Park, working with TPL and landscape architects. In addition to proposing amenities such as an outdoor amphitheater and running track, Monique innocently asked where the high metal fences, metal detectors, and armed police officers would be positioned. “The kids just assumed, based upon their experience, that parks couldn’t exist without those things,” explains Colleen Graves, TPL’s Parks for People program manager in Newark. “If you ask the kids and their parents what their priorities are, safety concerns rank at the top of the list.”

Serving Students

Faith Blasi, a fifth-grade teacher at Eighteenth Avenue School, looks forward to the opening of Nat Turner Park. On paper, the nine-acre, rubble-strewn lot has been Newark’s largest city-owned park since the city acquired the land in the 1970s. Three decades later it is about to become a showplace park within easy reach of Eighteenth Avenue School, Cleveland Elementary School, and the new Central High School slated to open in 2008. TPL has already raised the $7 million needed to build the park.

Getting outdoors more often will allow students to release pent-up aggression and learn to negotiate interpersonal disputes better, Blasi says. She looks forward to using the park as an outdoor classroom. “What will success look like?” she asks. “It will be a park that is used, that is taken care of, and that the kids realize belongs to them.”

Creating parks and playgrounds near schools is particularly important in a place like Newark, says Newark native Dr. Raymond Lindgren, executive assistant to Newark Public Schools Superintendent Marion A. Bolden. The average age of Newark schools is 85 years, and many playgrounds have been converted into faculty parking lots, often rimmed with barbed wire for extra security. Lindgren recalls the damage done by rioting that swept some areas of Newark in 1967. “After the riots, some neighborhoods in the Central Ward looked like bomb zones for the better part of three decades,” he says. “But you can’t keep the problems of the world out simply by building a larger wall around your personal space; nor do barbed wire fences encircling our schools make the kids feel any safer.”

Many students live in single-parent households anchored by mothers who may work a couple of jobs but can’t afford to send their kids to private day care. Latchkey kids in particular need parks and playgrounds after school and are the most vulnerable to bad influences that can destroy a young person’s future, says Bertha Martin, who oversees the after-school program at Quitman Street Community School in the heart of the Central Ward.

In 2000, TPL refurbished that school’s two-acre concrete schoolyard as the Quitman Street Community Playground. Like TPL’s other parks and playgrounds, this one was designed not only with community input but also with the promise of continuing community stewardship to keep it open and supervised, even when school is not in session. To this end, the Community Agencies Corporation maintains a community center on the Quitman site. The playground offers a mini-track where meets are held; a basketball court and assorted playground equipment; karate classes; theater, dance, and band activities; a drill team; and paid adult chaperones. Almost 250 kids are enrolled in the after-school program, and there’s a long waiting list.

Having the playground available after school has made a huge difference in the lives of latchkey kids and other students, Martin says. “The school used to do little beautification projects to make things look nice, but that wasn’t enough. These kids needed supervision,” she notes. “Our kids are so smart. They know what’s good for them. It gives them comfort to know that when school ends tomorrow, they’ll be able to be back here in a safe haven.”

Passaic River Revival

Nothing has so advanced the cause of green space in Newark as the election of Cory A. Booker as mayor in 2006. “Cory Booker represents the next generation of young urban leaders, who possess both impressive academic pedigrees and larger imaginations for thinking about what great cities are supposed to be,” says Dr. Clement Alexander Price, distinguished professor of history and director of the Rutgers University Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience. “These new leaders are well aware that environmental issues and public health concerns are the new frontiers of the civil rights movement.”

Through all its troubles, Newark has remained a key economic center for industries such as transportation, telecommunications, wholesale and retail trade, and insurance. And increasingly the city is attracting residents in search of affordable urban living convenient to Manhattan. By working with TPL and other partners, the Booker administration is determined to support neighborhood greening as a way to advance redevelopment and economic revitalization throughout the city. “We believe that parks, playgrounds, and new public open spaces can play a vital role in sustaining livable neighborhoods and building the city’s economic future,” Mayor Booker says.

The new Joseph G. Minish Passaic River Waterfront Park is a vital component of this work. Under the park plan, two miles of riverfront will have walking trails, public plazas, mini-parks, and athletic fields woven into a mosaic of commercial and residential areas to attract new businesses and residents. In addition, the plan would create areas for active recreation near the Ironbound neighborhood, a vibrant, multiethnic, working-class enclave nestled in a bend in the river. Today the 45,000 residents of the historically Portuguese neighborhood include more than 50 other ethnic groups. The $80 million riverfront plan has gotten a boost from Congress, which has approved $5.5 million through the leadership of the New Jersey congressional delegation, with an additional $3 million appropriation pending next year.

Greening the neighborhood’s riverfront is a social justice issue, says Joe Della Fave, director of the Iron-bound Community Corporation. The Passaic River once powered the factories on which much of Newark’s wealth was based, and defunct chemical and industrial plants left the river and its embankments deeply contaminated. Promoted by the Ironbound Community Corporation and endorsed by TPL, the restoration effort represents an opportunity to clean up polluted sites, revive the waterfront for the benefit of a neighborhood that bore the brunt of Newark’s industrial past, and spur economic growth. TPL will develop a comprehensive plan for the waterfront parkland, pursue public and private funds for the project, acquire the remaining parcels and easements necessary to complete park development, and initiate a design for improvements.

Whether seen in action along the Passaic River or in the Central Ward, environmentalism in Newark is more than restoring green space, creating trails, and putting grass and trees on the ground. It is about changing the way people feel about their city, their stake in it, and their ability to affect their own lives. Along with TPL, Monique Freeman, Fannie Mae Harris, Bertha Martin, Joe Della Fave, and others working on the greening of Newark are forging a new kind of urban environmentalism.

“TPL is opening an intergenerational, interracial discourse on environmental issues and bringing Newark into a movement that has largely ignored poor people in cities,” says Professor Clement Price. “In my view, TPL is leading the rediscovery of urban New Jersey as a place for grassroots conservation.”

Montana-based writer Todd Wilkinson writes for many national magazines and is a western correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. His story about Atlanta’s Beltline park system appeared in the Spring 2007 issue of Land&People. He is currently writing a book about Ted Turner.